Mary Elliott Birks (later Bickerstaff)

Mary was the first child of William Elliott Birks and his wife Jane Stevens. She was born in Wolverhampton on 15th June, 1879 where her father was Minister at the local Unitarian Church. It seems to have been a happy time for her parents ; her mother liked Wolverhampton, noting in her handwritten memoir that

At Xmas we moved to Wolverhampton where we lived at no.1 Goldthorne Terrace, Penn Rd; the ground in front was a large open field at that time and a lovely view across about 20 miles of country with the Wrekin as background. We must have been there about 3 years, during which time he raised about £120 for a new organ. The chapel was then on Snowhill but has since been removed.

Mary lived in a number of places with her family as her father’s restless spirit drove him to move to new Churches. His wife wrote

From Wolverhampton we moved to Stroud in Gloucestershire. It was a very pretty chapel and a rather select congregation. It was a very pretty neighbourhood and my uncle said when he came to see us ‘I should think Mr Birks will stay here’. However, it was too quiet and he was eager for a large town again, and Portsmouth becoming vacant he came a preacher one Sunday and got it.

Portsmouth, Diss, Banbury and Sunderland followed. Later they moved to Aberdeen, where the congregation clearly did not like their new preacher; this rejection seems to have deeply wounded him and he does not appear to have had a regular Ministry again, although he continued to undertake supply roles.

For a while they lived in Lee, in South East London where Mary attended Channing House School, founded by Robert Spears, a successful Unitarian Minister. Channing House School opened in 1885 and is still an active, thriving school; it is named after William Ellery Channing, a major Unitarian theologian.

Frank Elliott Birks, one of Mary’s younger brothers, notes that she inherited her father’s spirit of independence and free thought. However, her health was poor and although she would liked to have taken up nursing, she was not strong enough. A relative has suggested that she may have had Addison’s Disease, a serious and, without modern treatment, potentially fatal disorder; it would certainly explain her early death following childbirth. Her health was so poor that on one occasion in her teens she was given only months to live. Her mother wrote

Whilst living at Lee (London S.E.) we sent May to Channing House School as she wanted to be a nurse, but she had never been strong and was not really fit to leave home. Later she was very ill and the Dr gave her 18 months of life, she ‘wanted to go home’ (meaning Portsmouth) so we moved down to our property Wanstead Villa (Villiers Road).

Instead of a career in nursing she learnt dressmaking and set up her own business, later in partnership with a Miss Hannah Comlay. She was active in the Unitarian faith and on at least one occasion she conducted a service when her father was unable to do so. When the family, including her seven siblings, lived at Clarendon Road in Portsmouth in the early years of the 20th century, she had her own rooms. She bought an American organ and her friends met there for religious sing songs. Much later she did voluntary work amongst the inmates of the workhouse.

She married John Nathaniel Bickerstaff, an electrician, at Southsea Aug, 12, 1907.  He had been born in Portsmouth, but his father, William Caters Bickerstaff, came from the small County Antrim  town of Glenavey where the Bickerstaffs were an established family.   William is described as an ‘army pensioner’ at the wedding of one of his children in 1915.  She died after the birth of their first son, John William, at Grove Park, near Warwick, Aug. 9th, 1915. She was buried on August 12 at Budbrooke Church, her grave is marked by a headstone. Her widow remarried later that year to a woman called Kate Marriott, some years his senior.  A family member suggests that she was a friend of Mary Elliott. He was widowed again in 1938 and died in 1972. The son of John Nathaniel and Mary Elliott, John William had six children and died in Warwickshire.

In early life she wrote poetry. One short example was published in The Christian Life, a weekly Unitarian newspaper founded and edited by Robert Spears


Shall we ever know, I wonder,
Why crosses are heavy to bear,
Why the way is rough and lonely
And hearts are burdened with care?
Shall we know that a Father hath led us,
Patiently all the way,
And he tenderly guided and kept us
Hour by hour, and day by day.

For behind the blackest storm-cloud T
The sun still shines on high,
And the darkest hour of night-time
Is the hour when dawn is nigh.

So we clasp His hand in the darkness,
And we trust his loving sight;
And after the earthly dimness
Comes the eternal light.

Some of this information from the notebook of Frank Elliott Birks her brother.  With thanks to Channing House School, for additional information, and further thanks to her grand-daughter for information about Mary’s health problems.


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